OP-ED The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan has Failed Us

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In the late-1990s, before the dot-com bubble burst, San Francisco’s eastern neighborhoods faced many of the same issues as today:  rapid gentrification and displacement.  In Potrero Hill and Dogpatch real estate investors gobbled up industrial sites made valuable by 1988 Live-Work legislation that was supposed to help artists, instead displacing them, along with small businesses and manufacturers. Developers skirted zoning controls, bought cheap industrial land and converted it quickly to more profitable housing, receiving tax benefits and exemptions from residential code requirements.

In an attempt to resolve land use conflicts, an eastern neighborhoods planning process began in 2001. The goal was to build complete communities, with a balance of land uses, as well as affordable housing, transportation, and new and improved open space to serve a growing population.

As the planning process dragged on, development in the eastern neighborhoods continued mostly unabated until 2006, when a 68-unit Mission District condominium project, 2660 Harrison Street, was appealed to the Board of Supervisors. The Board upheld the appeal, reversed the Planning Commission’s decision to exempt the project from full environmental review, and instructed the developers to evaluate its impacts on blue-collar businesses and affordable housing. The Planning Department then applied the same standard to a number of pipeline projects, effectively initiating a two-year moratorium until a comprehensive plan for the area was developed.

The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan was approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2009, at a time when the real estate market had collapsed.  The Plan emerged from what many considered to be an exhaustive community engagement process that identified a number of laudable objectives. The Showplace Square/Potrero Area Plan sought to balance light industrial, knowledge sector and design space to provide “good jobs” for residents and a significant amount of new housing for a diverse range of household incomes. It promised “a comprehensive package of public benefits” and rezoned much of the land in the Potrero Flats and Showplace Square to Production, Distribution and Repair (PDR) and Urban Mixed Use (UMU).

But the Plan had no mechanism to deliver on most of its promises, particularly those supporting mixed land uses and providing the public amenities necessary for complete, livable neighborhoods.

The idea was, since industrial land was inexpensive, conversion to UMU zoning would provide a viable means for developers to build affordable housing. A requirement that PDR be included within UMU projects was stripped out. In the end, speculators got a free pass to build more profitable, entirely residential projects; Showplace Square and Potrero Hill ended up with “anything goes” zoning markedly similar to what’d been allowed under Live/Work legislation.

UMU lacks formal design guidelines. Developers can seek exceptions to “horizontal massing” and rear yard requirements, allowing massive boxy structures to be built throughout Potrero Hill, Showplace Square and Dogpatch. Although the Planning Department recently drafted comprehensive guidelines, it’ll likely be some time before they’re approved.

Perhaps the most devastating failure has been the broken promise to provide necessary infrastructure and community benefits to support a near doubling of population on Potrero Hill. The Plan took the long view, seeking to balance growth over a 25 year period. But development has been compressed into a quarter of that time, with almost no associated public amenities. The Plan anticipated that 3,180 residential units would be built in Showplace Square and Potrero Hill by 2025. Recent Planning Department analysis indicates that as of February 2016, projects containing 3,315 units have been completed, are under construction or in the pipeline.

As part of the Plan’s environmental review, the cost of mitigating the impacts of growth was examined, with the idea that developers would pay impact fees to fund necessary infrastructure improvements. Unfortunately, due to concerns that growth would stall after the 2008 recession, impact fees were set at only one-third of the actual need; adequate alternative funding sources have never been identified.

Acknowledging the lack of adequate open space, The 2010 Showplace Square Open Space Plan included a mandate to provide four acres of new open space to accommodate expected growth. To date, only one acre has been provided, at Daggett Park, just enough open space for the 1,000 new residents moving into 1010 Potrero.

Transit improvements were studied for an inadequate system that was already at capacity. Despite the Eastern Neighborhood Transit Implementation Planning Study and the subsequent Transit Effectiveness Plan, Potrero Hill has not received the transit improvements it needs, while traffic congestion worsens every day

The current situation demands drastic measures. The City must shift the land use balance to accommodate a larger proportion of small businesses, neighborhood services, arts space, and a PDR and maker component. Unfortunately, what’s unfolding is massive, primarily market rate housing, with little regard to the community’s dire need for open space, transit, recreational facilities, schools, affordable housing, neighborhood services and sufficient space to provide jobs for a diverse workforce.